At a champagne brunch hosted by Greenlight Women on Sunday, iconic director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Talk to Me) was honored as a woman of distinction and excellence for her highly anticipated Harriet Tubman biopic, Harriet. The theme of the Black History Month brunch, “Black Migrations,” was weaved throughout a Q&A with Lemmons and Harriet co-star Vanessa Bell Calloway, who both spoke of their enslaved ancestors, their families’ migrations north and the impact that their histories had on them bringing the story of “American superhero” Harriet Tubman to life.
During the Q&A, Shadow And Act asked Lemmons, as a daughter of the Great Migration and enslaved Black Americans, what her response was to the backlash that her lead actress Cynthia Erivo faced for being cast as Harriet Tubman–the latest Black British actor to be cast as an historic Black American figure (joining others like David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in Selma and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years A Slave).
“I understand it,” Lemmons told Shadow And Act. “I certainly understand and respect the conversation. But I think I could tell you, her work was so sincere and true that, almost, you have to see the movie. You know what I mean? For me, I’m looking at a woman with recent ancestors from West Africa playing a woman with recent ancestors from West Africa, who is tiny, who is mighty, who can sing as Harriet did. And acts her face off. She’s just so good,” she said.
“But really, people are going to have to see the movie. But, I do, I understand. I understand that conversation. However, she is uniquely perfect for the role and she’s perfect in the movie. I watch this film all day long, every day,” said Lemmons, who is currently finishing the director’s cut of Harriet. “And I play a game where I look for Cynthia and I can’t find her,” she said. “‘Take off the wig, you know she’s under there,’” but, the director says, Erivo disappears into the role. “That’s Harriett Tubman.”
Erivo’s initial response seemed less understanding back in September when the criticism of her casting on social media was at its peak. In an Instagram post, she dismissed suggestions that British Black actors have privilege over Black American actors in Hollywood and that British Black actors can benefit while in America from the stigma and shame placed on their Black American counterparts who are descendants of enslaved people:
“Nothing has been given to me without me first putting the work in,” she wrote. “People speak of foreign privilege and truthfully life would be unbelievably easy if that were applied to me but that is not my portion,” she wrote.
“I hope that I do everyone, even those who are in doubt or are upset, proud. I hope to quell your fears, because I understand that is what it is. I cannot tell how protective I am of this woman and her story. I posted this because I can not allow people to make me neglect to celebrate this honor,” Erivo said.
*In an interview with Bustle published in October 2018, Erivo acknowledged the root of some of the online backlash she faced for her casting:
“I get that there is upset for me playing this role, and I understand where it comes from. It comes from so many African-American women feeling that they don’t get seen. There just isn’t enough when it comes to film and TV and entertainment. There isn’t enough — nowhere near enough — for us, as women of color, to see ourselves….And so I understand why this particular role, which is held to high esteem in this community, feels like it’s losing one of their own.”
She went on to say:
“But at the same time…I would speak to it as a woman of color. The only way we can come to agreement or to a common place is to understand that we all have suffered from feeling invisible; we all have suffered from otherness. And the only way to combat that is not to separate each other from each other, but to come together and have that discussion and understand what that is.”
*This article has been updated to include Erivo’s more recent interview with Bustle on the subject.